The Green Bay Packers suddenly have a gaping hole at inside linebacker. Jake Ryan’s torn ACL opened up a starting job next to Blake Martinez and although the team has a host of athletic and talented players vying to replace him — including third-round rookie Oren Burks — sometimes experience is a necessity.
The Packers have options to fill in for Ryan in the passing game, with Burks and second-year pro Ahmad Thomas both impressing in coverage to this point. However, bringing a thump in the run game and filling in for Ryan’s special teams contributions are factors that might necessitate an outside move.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine even alluded to the possibility of bringing aboard a veteran linebacker in his Wednesday press conference. “We’re going to get together as a staff later this week when we talk about the roster and kind of where we are moving forward what our needs are. And I know there’s certainly open lines of communication with the personnel department,” Pettine said.
This begs the question: what veteran linebackers are even on the market? One name that came up on Thursday is Navorro Bowman, the former All-Pro who spent most of his career in San Francisco. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero mentioned that the Packers have been discussing Bowman, but there appear to be no firm plans as yet.
Still, it’s worth looking at what players are available to see who might tempt general manager Brian Gutekunst to make a move. Here are a handful of the bigger names on the market — though it’s a market that appears to have little in the way of intriguing players at this point in the preseason.
First up is of course Bowman, a four-time first-team All-Pro with the 49ers. The 2010 third-round pick was a staple of Vic Fangio’s defense for several years, even being an All-Pro in 2015 after he missed the entire previous season due to a shredded knee that he suffered in the postseason the year before.
In 2017, Bowman started the year with San Francisco, but he ended up not being a great fit in the new 4-3 scheme and he was costing a huge amount of money. Thus, GM John Lynch elected to release him as a favor to him, giving him the freedom to find a new team for the remainder of the season. Bowman signed quickly with the Raiders, for whom he started ten games with an interception and a fumble recovery.
Bowman likely wouldn’t sign for the league minimum, but he’s 30 years old and would probably love an opportunity to make a playoff run. Perhaps Green Bay would indeed be a fit for him.
Verdict: An intriguing player, but he probably would command some guaranteed money up front.
A teammate of Clay Matthews’ at USC, Cushing was a nine-year starter for the Houston Texans before the team released him in February. However, he comes with massive baggage; he has been suspended for PEDs twice, including a ten-game ban last fall. That limited him to just five games in 2017, over which time he made just 16 total tackles and had 1.5 sacks. Ultimately, there’s way too much baggage here to imagine the Packers taking a flier on him.
Verdict: Nope. Just nope.
The oldest player on this list, Dansby will turn 37 in November and has been in the NFL since 2004. However, he still started 15 games for the Arizona Cardinals last year (his third stint with that team) and he has a few notable Packers connections.
First, he played with Tramon Williams in Arizona a year ago, but he also had experience playing for Pettine in Cleveland, serving as the middle linebacker during Pettine’s two years as the Browns’ head coach. The Packers could do worse than this 14-year veteran if they simply need to fill Ryan’s shoes in the running game for 20-25 snaps per game.
Verdict: Could adequately fill the need on a veteran minimum deal
Another former 49er, Wilhoite was a key special teams player early in his career before taking over as a full-time starter for two years in 2014-15. The last two years he has started part-time, still in San Francisco in 2016 then in Seattle last year with the Seahawks.
As far as veterans go, Wilhoite might be the best option for filling in for Ryan as both a part-time defensive player and a contributor on special teams. Then again, there’s no real reason to think he would be better than the young players competing for spots on the roster right now. That said, there would be little to no guaranteed money involved, so the team could release him at the end of camp without any financial impact.
Verdict: Bringing Wilhoite in to compete would be a low-risk move, but the potential reward is also minimal.
This journeyman has made four stops in his NFL career, starting at least one game in every one of this seven seasons and at least six games in six of those seven years. In addition, he’s getting workouts — in fact, he was just in Detroit this week trying out for a job.
However, while spending the last two seasons with the New York Giants, Sheppard has been a pretty sure tackler, tying for first among 2018 free agent inside linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ tackling efficiency measurement for the 2017 season. That said, PFF’s grading has been unkind to him in the run game, as he hasn’t eclipsed a 45 grade in that area for the last three years.
Verdict: Could contribute a few snaps per game, but he’s essentially a replacement-level player.
Hear me out.
Sure, Reid is theoretically a safety, but he essentially played the Will linebacker spot for most of last season in San Francisco and could do so again in Green Bay. Regardless of anyone’s personal politics regarding his kneeling during the national anthem, his quality of play is absolutely deserving of a spot on an NFL roster.
Sure, he’s a similar type of player to Josh Jones, but that’s a role that’s valuable in today’s NFL — not to mention that it’s the kind of player that Mike Pettine would love to have on his defense. He could even help to bolster both the inside linebacker and safety positions simultaneously if Kentrell Brice is out for any length of time.
Personally, I have no problem with Reid, but even if I did, I would have to acknowledge that his talent and versatility would be a big help for this defense. And at this point, he probably would accept a pretty low salary in order to just get a shot to make it on the field.